The big thrust in education policy at the moment is about ‘equality’. That’s always a contentious word in all the spheres it comes up in, but I think that the particular areas which it concerns here are fair enough – firstly, to ensure ‘equality of opportunity’ in education, and, more precisely, to close the poverty-related attainment gap. However, I think that, as these two concepts are being applied just now, they are contradictory, unless we tease out the first one and make it ‘equality of opportunity to achieve the educational potential of every child in Scotland’. Now there’s an aim that no-one, even with the flintiest economic heart, could disagree with.
Our current problem is that ‘equality’ means ‘giving young people the same experience’, something borne out of economic necessity – it’s cheap – rather than any educational philosophy. You can call it what you like – ‘Excellence for All’, ‘Curriculum for Brilliance’, ‘Schools for the 21st Century’, ‘Let’s Get All Our Children Knitting’ – but if it’s more or less the same experience for them all, then lots of them will never achieve their potential.
At the moment, the experience of secondary schooling is a dispiriting one for lots of young people, as they pursue the grail of academic qualifications which they strive for essentially as currency for further study. Many of them are bored, either because they are not being stretched, or because they can’t do what they are being asked to do, and aren’t interested in it anyway, often because they can’t see what it’s for.
A key buzzword in classroom pedagogy is ‘differentiation’ – different children in your class have different abilities and need to be taught in different ways. But what we need is differentiation on a much, much wider scale. I think schools are too rigidly structured. The Scottish Government’s 2018 paper ‘Guidance on the Presumption of Mainstreaming’ had the surtitle ‘Excellence and Equity for all’. In fact, mainstreaming cannot provide excellence for all and it provides equity only in the sense that, as I’ve said, everyone has a common experience. That paper does not, in my view, have its roots in educational success at all, but rather in two things – the Government’s desire to see schools as agents of sociological theory and social harmony, and the bald fact that any ‘different’ education is bound to be expensive.
To make an analogy, let us imagine that education is food, and schools are restaurants. In the interests of equality, the Government is inviting us in and giving us all more or less the same plate of food. Sometimes the restaurant is a bit classier and has a nice swimming pool; sometimes the chef is a bit more inventive and makes the common ingredients more exciting. Basically though, it’s a plate of fish and chips for everyone, even if you’re allergic to fish, or really love chips, or would really prefer a salad. Everyone gets to S4 and tries to get some qualifications, whether they can or not, and whether they want to or not. And after S4 all that changes is that only some people can get a reservation.
Mainstreaming is particularly difficult for children with special needs. I have an involvement with a specialist school, and it is a privilege to see the dedicated and highly qualified staff of that establishment working with their pupils, many of whom have multiple educational needs and many of whom have, at some point, been recommended for ‘mainstreaming’. Education at such schools is of course, very expensive, but it is necessary and fair for Scottish society to pay such monies in order to ensure that all its children are achieving their potential.
But the argument is of course much wider than such specialised cases. ‘Mainstreaming’, mixed-ability teaching and the whole comprehensive movement inevitably means that lots and lots of children are not being educated with anything near the widely different methodologies necessary to achieving their potential. Firstly, although everybody in education denies this, there is an obsession with qualifications fuelled by the grail of Higher Education, pursuing a myth that society is better off if more people go to university. This means that the four final years of education are structured towards exam success or failure. This is fine, I think, for a fairly significant portion of our young people. However, the academic, intellectual, clever, intelligent top end needs stretched and stimulated, and, possibly even more importantly, the bottom end academically needs an entirely different approach, one which takes them away from the patronage of National 5’s and Highers they can’t do and are not interested in. So we need a much much greater investment in vocational education.
What I would propose is that at the end of S2, at the end of what is now called ‘Broad General Education’, young people, through discussion with their teachers and their parents, make informed choices about what kind of educational experience they want for the rest of their secondary school experience. This might include a gifted and talented track, and a vocational track, and the provision of specialist schools in music, sport, drama, computing science, art and design, skilled trades, maths, creative writing, catering, the automobile industry, the care industry, business education, the leisure industry – either existing as separate institutions or as units attached to mainstream schools.
Pupils in these schools would of course continue with some aspects of general education, with a heavy emphasis on essential skills, but would spend at least half their time, from the age of 14, in their specialist area. It seems to me that Scotland is now too polite to say that some kids are just cleverer than others, but at the same time is obsessed educationally with ensuring that everyone has the chance to go to university.
Most people I know have the greatest of respect for skilled tradespeople, small business owners, care workers etc, but we seem unwilling to incorporate the education necessary to advance these choices at secondary level, or, at least, early enough to make a difference. The Scottish Government laudably is keen to close the poverty-related attainment gap, so that Fiona from Niddrie has the same chance to reach her educational potential as Fiona from the Grange. That is clearly and undeniably a good aim.
However, the dickering about that’s currently going on really results in more of same and runs the risk of closing the academic attainment gap by making some pupils who are academically less strong perform a bit better, while making the top end do less well, which would be a disaster for Scotland. What is needed is for all our children to go to whatever school suits their needs and that means a choice, and that means much greater investment. There is, we know, extra money already being pumped into education, but, we need to ask, what’s it achieving?
Cameron Wyllie, a retired headteacher, publishes a blog called A House in Joppa